Community Colleges in the West: The Expansion of This Critical Sector of Postsecondary Education

Article excerpt

The history of community colleges nationwide has been well documented. We know that the primary focus for community colleges has been to serve as the first point of entrance for many students who, otherwise, would not have been able to gain access to higher education. More than just increased access has been gained with the evolution of community colleges. Greater reliance on these colleges seems to be a significant strategy for most states, especially those trying to address the issue of a growing diversity of student populations. In this article the author will examine the growth and expansion of community colleges in the West by viewing the phenomenon through several lenses. The descriptive data are provided to lay the foundation of the broad, sweeping influence of community colleges in today's postsecondary environment on the national scene. More specifically data are provided for five decades for each of the fifteen Western states, including enrollment, funding for all of higher education, and funding for community colleges. Finally, recent public policy issues facing the community colleges in the West are reviewed.

Introduction

Higher education in general has expanded and contributed to the advancement of our country on many fronts, not the least of which is economic growth. Specifically community colleges have served multiple uses with their focus on workforce preparation, transfer programs, and short-term training for various industries. But probably the most important contribution community colleges have made is viding access to postsecondary education. The history of community colleges has been documented quite extensively (Baker, 1994; Brint & Karabel, 1989; Cohen & Brawer, 1989; Goodchild & Wechsler, 1997), and the numbers demonstrate continuous growth and expansion ever since the flrst community college was established in Joliet, Illinois, in 1901 (Deegan & Tillery 1985). We know from these and other accounts that the primary focus for community colleges has been to serve as the flrst point of entrance for many students who otherwise, would not have been able to gain access to higher education (Cohen, 2001). Through this access, millions have been served and educated by community colleges all over the United states.

However, more than just increased access has been gained with the evolution of community colleges, Greater reliance on community colleges seems to be a significant strategy for many states, especially those trying to meet the needs of a growing diversity of student populations. Community colleges have played an especially poignant role by being a flrst point of entrance for diverse populations (Simmons, 1994). Many community colleges across the United States find large minority populations enrolled in their programs though the graduation rates have been uneven or the transfer rates have not been as high as the entrance numbers.

Because community colleges have played such a critical role in the history of higher education, it seems fitting to explore their expansion in the Western states. This article examines the growth and expansion of community colleges, looking exclusively at the fifteen states in the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) over of five decades. The growth of community colleges in the West will be viewed through four different lenses.

The first lens focuses on the growth of community colleges in the WICHE states by looking at the number and types of community colleges found in this region over the five decades. Special population institutions such as Tribal Colleges (TCs) and Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) are noted and their growth described.

Through the second lens, an important view of the enrollments and participation in community colleges comes into focus, providing a clear picture of growth in terms of the percentage of students enrolled in community college; this growth is also presented and expressed as a percentage of the state's total postsecondary enrollment. …